1906: The Front Royal, Rappahannock & Tidewater Railroad

The Panic of 1907 was a complex meltdown of the New York City financial system with both people and companies withdrawing their money from trusts and banks as news of a web of speculators caused a loss of confidence in the system. J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and other titans of finance bailed out the U.S. government before the chaos spread beyond any recovery. New enterprises came to a halt. The Federal Reserve System was formed in 1913 to prevent such from happening again.Wikimedia Commons
The Panic of 1907 was a complex meltdown of the New York City financial system with both people and companies withdrawing their money from trusts and banks as news of a web of speculators caused a loss of confidence in the system. J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and other titans of finance bailed out the U.S. government before the chaos spread beyond any recovery. New enterprises came to a halt. The Federal Reserve System was formed in 1913 to prevent such from happening again.

Rappahannock County has always been behind the times in certain areas. Nowadays it lacks comprehensive cell phone coverage and internet access. More than a century ago, in April 1900, the editor of the Blue Ridge Guide, forerunner of the current Rappahannock News, noted it lacked ordinary telephone service: “… news can reach the centers of trade, etc., from the Philippines in less time than it can from Rappahannock County.”

Roads back then? An abomination. As late as 1908, the Blue Ridge Guide noted, “a gentleman from another state visited our County to look at a farm, with the intention of locating. The farm was all that was desired, the general conditions satisfactory, but [he] said that he had made up his mind that he would not invest his money in any section where it was dangerous to life to travel the public roads.”

And railroads? The well-to-do in the county wanted a railroad more than ever to keep up with the burgeoning American economy. As the prospects for a 1906 Fredericksburg and Rappahannock Railroad faded, a new venture got underway: The Front Royal, Rappahannock & Tidewater Railroad.

The first hint that something was in the works was in February 1906 when the Blue Ridge Guide said, “We understand there is a project on foot to build a railroad from Front Royal to this place [Washington, Va.]. A meeting will be held in Front Royal today.” The was confirmed in March 1906, when Rappahannock County’s former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, George W. Settle, made an enthusiastically received address to the Front Royal and Riverton Board of Trade favoring a line between Front Royal and Little Washington.

In April 1906, a W. L. Jones of Philadelphia took an interest in this projected electric railroad through Chester Gap. He told the secretary of the Front Royal Board of Trade that he would get Philadelphia capitalists to “take hold of it.” But the Times-Dispatch of Richmond of April 5, 1906 was more pessimistic, noting “land owners along the proposed line of the route have refused to sell their timber land to promoters engaged in trying to inaugurate the road, and without these timber rights capitalists have shown a lack of desire to engage in the enterprise. The people who hold the timber land want to keep on holding it, believing, properly, perhaps, that if it is never a fortune to them it will be such to their children.”

But still, in May 1906, one of the best railroad engineers in the south, VMI-educated Edward McConnell, agreed to make an estimate of the cost to carry out a preliminary survey of the route of the railroad from Front Royal to Little Washington [one is always impressed by the high caliber of people who appear in Rappahannock County].

On Friday, June 1, a contingent from the Front Royal Board of Trade, along with McConnell, met with a number of interested Rappahannock people at the courthouse in Washington. The latter group quickly organized itself. J. J. Miller, who had just started to explore the copper on his land, called the meeting to order and P. H. O’Bannon of Sperryville was made chairman, with Geo. E. Cary, the editor of the Blue Ridge Guide, made secretary. H. H. Downing of the Front Royal contingent made a speech on the need and advantages of the railroad, and issued a call to action. Letters from those ready to invest in the venture were read, but those people wanted the preliminary survey and some statistics first. A working committee was then appointed to meet with a similar committee from the Front Royal Board of Trade.

In June 1906, the engineer McConnell provided the needed statistics. A preliminary survey from Front Royal to Sperryville would cost $1,600. The railroad would cost $5,000 per mile to build.

Organization and expansion

Suddenly, there was talk of the railroad being extended to Madison County; then people spoke of a connecting line from Front Royal to Winchester. Instead of an electric railroad it could be a steam railroad with a connection from Winchester to Pittsburgh to tap into the coal and iron fields there. The railroad could run from Pittsburgh to Richmond and the Virginia tidewater. This was becoming a major enterprise.

The Richmond Times Dispatch of June 15, 1906 had a wealth of more interesting information on the proposed railroad. The newspaper told of a meeting in Front Royal of influential citizens from Warren County and Rappahannock County the day before, on Thursday afternoon, July 14, in the Front Royal courthouse. These gentlemen were going to promote and then build a railroad from Front Royal through Chester’s Gap, Rappahannock, Madison, Greene, Louisa and Fluvanna counties to Richmond and the tidewater (Chesapeake Bay). Of the preliminary survey from Front Royal to Sperryville for $1,600, already $1,000 had been subscribed, funded about equally between Warren and Rappahannock counties.

The article also noted that Rappahannock County’s Alfred Willis Dearing, the president of the Rappahannock National Bank of Washington, Va., and “possibly the wealthiest man in Northern Virginia,” had proposed to give a right-of-way through his extensive landed estate in Rappahannock as he was greatly interested in the railroad. The news item ended by stating that a representative of Northern financiers felt that Northern capitalists were willing to finance the railroad. If the venture were carried out it would connect tidewater Virginia via the railroad to the Cumberland Valley and the Baltimore and Ohio railroads at Winchester.

By mid-July 1906, a formal organization came into being with a president, four vice presidents, a treasurer and a secretary, along with a board of directors made up of the largest landowners and businessmen of Warren and Rappahannock counties, with an executive committee, plus committees for a charter, right of way and engineering. Funds had been subscribed for a survey and location of the railroad. These gentlemen were very well organized and enthusiastic. Some promoters and financial backers had gone over the route, and they hoped to have engineers in the field by August 1906.

Others had a more realistic view of the railroad. Thus, the Engineering News Supplement of July 7, 1906 was pretty blunt when it stated, “We are officially advised that contracts have not been awarded yet for construction of the Front Royal, Rappahannock & Tidewater R.R. Co.’s line from Front Royal through Chester’s Gap to Sperryville, via Washington, which will be from 23 to 25 miles long. No surveys have been made nor has right-of-way been secured.”

Even so, a charter was approved on August 17, 1906, and it provided for a 150-mile railroad from Front Royal to Richmond, passing through Charlottesville, with a capital stock of between $5,000 and $50,000. The railroad was allowed to pass through the following counties: Warren, Rappahannock, Madison, Greene, Albemarle, Culpeper, Orange, Louisa, Fluvanna, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, Spotsylvania and Fauquier. This covered both the main line and any subsequent branch lines.

By September 1906, two surveyors from the Franklin and Clarke Company in Philadelphia were selected, a Mr. Sanford and his assistant, a Mr. Armstrong. They started on Monday, Sept. 17. The Railroad Gazette of Sept. 21, 1906 noted that the survey from Front Royal to Washington, to Sperryville, 23½ miles, “will not be difficult, and will be mostly side cutting, with 2 to 2½ percent grades, some short bridges and a few trestles, but no tunnels.” By Friday, Oct. 12, they were three or four hundred yards west of the office of the Blue Ridge Guide. The editor of the newspaper was ecstatic. A week later a board meeting of the railroad met in Washington. The upshot: “An effort is being made to extend the survey into Madison County.”

In January 1907, C.C. Smoot & Sons Company, a tannery located in both Alexandria and Sperryville, contributed $200 toward continuing the preliminary survey from Sperryville to Criglersville, a distance of 25 miles. According to the Daily Bulletin of the Manufacturers Record of Feb. 7, 1907, this had been completed as planned, and so 50 miles of the preliminary survey were done.

And that was it. The Panic of 1907 started in October 1907 and was such that the stock market fell almost 50 percent from its 1906 peak. It was triggered when a few speculators tried to corner the copper market, causing a major New York trust company to fail, followed by other financial institutions. People began to take their money out of banks, banks and businesses went bankrupt, and money was not available for new enterprises.

Nothing more was heard from the Front Royal, Rappahannock & Tidewater Railroad. Another failure, through no fault of its own.

The exploitation of Rappahannock’s natural resources

In the early 1900s, well before the establishment of the Shenandoah National Park in 1935, people in Rappahannock County lived by exploiting the natural resources of the Blue Ridge mountains. A cycle had set in. As trees were felled for tanbark and lumber, the latter for use such as making barrels or railroad ties, apple trees were planted in their place. Apples were then packed in the locally made wooden barrels and capitalists hoped to use wooden railroad ties for a sorely needed railroad passing through the county. Minerals, such as copper, were discovered and again capitalists appeared in the county, hoping for a railroad to transport the ore out to the marketplace.

An interesting example of this cycle was the varying interests of John J. Miller. At one point, J. J. Miller owned about 8,200 acres of land in Rappahannock and Warren counties. It ran from his homestead at Mountain Green outside of Washington up and over the mountains and down the other side into Warren County.

In 1883, J. J. Miller had a 25-year contract with the Cover Brothers in Warren County, to provide a minimum of 1,000 cords of tanbark a year to the Covers’ Mount Vernon Tannery in Browntown. This was an industrial-level tannery that had four tenement houses on their ground for their employees. The tannery closed in 1899 as Miller’s tanbark in that area became exhausted.

In place of the revenue for tanbark, J. J. Miller began planting apple trees on his land. In 1902, he was noted as having planted and in cultivation between 9,000 and 10,000 apple trees; that was in addition to 2,000 already bearing fruit. He made $1,345 in 1902 just off of 200 trees.

In August 1904, the Blue Ridge Guide reported that J. J. Miller, with C. K. Edmunds, had formed the John J. Miller Manufacturing Company at Browntown. They planned to manufacture 20,000 to 25,000 barrel staves and headers a day for the market, and to turn out 200 to 300 barrels a day themselves. J. J. Miller had purchased 8,100 acres near Browntown to obtain the timber needed.

Although he sold out to a group of capitalists from Philadelphia who called it the Rappahannock Lumber Company, the group failed in 1907, and so J. J. Miller repossessed, kept the name, and made it work. In April 1905, Miller attended, in Memphis, the organization of the newly formed International Slack Cooperage Stock Manufacturers’ Association, representing Virginia. Slack cooperage was the term used for barrels that held dry items, such as apples, flour, etc. At three medium apples a pound, a barrel would hold about 100 pounds of apples, or 300 apples.

Others soon had plans to exploit Rappahannock County’s natural resources. In August 1905, two mining experts from Philadelphia, Mr. Van Vlect and Mr. Shriner, were said to have purchased and would develop mining property near Flint Hill. Now Mr. Van Vlect was no lightweight. He was vice president of the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company, a company that owned the best copper mine in the United States at Bisbee, Arizona. Another group of capitalists from Philadelphia formed the Flint Hill Mining and Lumber Company, buying up 2,000 acres near Flint Hill. A year later, in 1906, a member of the United States Geological Survey returned from Rappahannock County where he had examined copper deposits near Washington.

Then in April 1906, copper was discovered on J. J. Miller’s land, which he further explored in May 1906. This resulted in the formation of the Mount Marshall Copper Company on his property four miles north-northwest of Washington. Based in Cincinnati, the company soon had on site a Mr. Oliver. E. Conner, Jr., a well-known mining engineer, as general manager.

In September 1907, Conner had an unusual letter published in the Blue Ridge Guide. He spoke of removing 50 tons of good-looking copper ore. Then he told of having a crew of handsome young unmarried men and that “many of them have set aside a sum of money and are now looking around for suitable young ladies.” He then described his vision of the future, “when a respectable city will be built on the side of Mt. Marshall, peopled by the families of the men employed.” He said he planned to build his own general store in order not to be suckered in by the merchants in Little Washington. He closed with a comment about the fog up on the mountain and asked the natives to keep their fog to themselves. Not good public relations.

In the end, little was heard of copper mining in Rappahannock County. The Panic of 1907 saw the New York cash value of copper fall from 25½ cents a pound in March 1907 to 12½ cents in October 1907. Speculative capitalist disappeared almost overnight, but J. J. Miller continued to do exceptionally well with his ventures in cattle and apples.

— Don Audette

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